9 Online Learning Platforms for Quality Professional Development

Continuing education to help you get ahead in your career

Emerson Dameron
Emerson Dameron / Published February 5, 2019

Professional development is more than just a job perk—it's a job requirement. In order to learn the newest technologies and best practices, you need to keep up with the latest developments in your field. Online professional development courses offer an opportunity to hone your existing skills and pick up new ones as you grow in your career.

What Makes a Great Online Platform for Professional Development?

Online professional development has come a long way since Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, took off in 2012. Then, they were generally free and offered unlimited enrollment (hence the "massive" and "open"). Now, courses come in all shapes and sizes, with different levels of interactivity, instructor engagement, and commitment required.

As we evaluated various platforms, we looked for several things. First, we wanted to be sure that the platform was authoritative—whether that means an affiliation with a reputable institution of higher learning or instructors with impressive experience levels.

We also looked for platforms with breadth; that is, they cover either a wide array of subjects or all the topics that are central to a specific area. Additionally, the courses offered on these platforms dig deep into the material. We're not looking for courses that just check a box. Finally, we favored platforms that offered some sort of certification that you can add to your resume.

In the end, we narrowed it down to nine popular online platforms for professional development. Take a look and see which platform offers the right courses for you.

9 Online Platforms for Quality Professional Development

Coursera

Best online professional development platform for course variety

If you want to develop a variety of skills, Coursera will give you the breadth of options you want without sacrificing quality. With roots in the Computer Science department at Stanford, its early offerings focused on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). Now Coursera now offers over 2,700 courses in almost any field imaginable.

If you want to earn a certificate for your course, you'll need to complete the course assignments, usually in the form of quizzes. But if you're just interested in learning something new to develop your skills, and don't need to prove to future employers that you've done so, you can audit most courses for free, viewing all the course material without participating.

If you're up for a major commitment, they offer Professional Certificates in Applied Project Management and Innovation Management and Entrepreneurship. These certificates are intended for knowledge workers with some experience under their belt. But before you shell out the hundreds of dollars required, be sure that the employer you're looking to impress will be swayed by this accomplishment.

Each course is affiliated with a university, corporation, or other organization, and the credentials of the instructors are clearly laid out. In many cases, you're learning from the most respected professors in a given field.

Coursera Pricing: Many courses can be audited for free; pricing for individual courses ranges from $29-$99, specializations range from $39-$79/month, and degrees can run anywhere from $15-$25,000/program.

edX

Best online professional development platform for professional certifications

edX Digital Marketing course

With roots in Harvard and MIT, edX is focused on hardcore academics. Still, they offer a few ways to consume the material, depending on your goals. Their XSeries Programs let you dig deep into a subject (e.g., data analysis in Excel), and they also offer about 100 Professional Certificates Programs in everything from mortgage backed securities to corporate finance to front-end development.

The edX user experience skews low-tech compared to some of the others on this list, but the authority of the instructors is apparent. For example, you can take a course on data science from a Harvard professor or a course on big data from a Microsoft content developer.

As a non-profit organization that runs on its own open-source software platform, edX practices what it preaches. Compared to many of its competitors, it offers an impressive amount of educational content for free, requiring only an investment of time and cerebral wherewithal. Of course, if you want a certification, it'll cost you.

edX Pricing: Audit many of edX's courses for free; fees for courses that provide credentials vary greatly, from as low as $50 for individual courses, to a few hundred dollars for certificates, and as much as $25,000 for a master's degree.

Alison

Best online professional development platform for an affordable alternative

Alison Digital Marketing course

Courses on Alison are based on courses from institutions of higher learning including Yale, Columbia, and Cambridge, as well as corporations like Microsoft and Google—and it's often presented by the same professors and experts who teach the live versions of the courses.

Founder and CEO Mike Feerick makes a point of adhering to the high ideals early MOOCs were founded on, such as open source ideas and the free flow of information. That's why much much of Alison's content is free, and you can download your "learner record" at any time for proof of completion. Even the certificate courses are much more affordable than the competitors': You can get a course certificate for just over $20.

Alison Pricing: You can access all content on Alison for free (with advertisements); even Alison's paid courses are quite affordable compared to their in-person counterparts.

Udacity

Best online professional development platform for cutting-edge courses

Udacity Digital Marketing nanodegree

Udacity is a creature of Silicon Valley—and it shows. It's distinguished by its partnerships with tech giants like Google and its emphasis on advanced, cutting-edge topics: things like deep learning, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and self-driving cars.

Udacity's Nanodegree programs provide learners with focused coursework developed with industry partners, who, according to Udacity's website, hire many of the programs' graduates.

And you know you're getting authoritative material. For example, the Google Analytics Nanodegree is presented "in collaboration with" Google, and the instructors are certified Google Analytics partners. And the Intro to Self-Driving Cars Nanodegree is taught by people like Sebastian Thrun, one of the pioneers of autonomous vehicle development.

Udacity Pricing: Some courses are free; Nanodegree costs vary by program.

LinkedIn Learning

Best online professional development platform for day-to-day skill-building

LinkedIn Learning Digital Marketing course

Founded in 1995 as Lynda.com and later acquired by LinkedIn, LinkedIn Learning offers bite-sized courses that can get you up and running on a given subject quickly.

For example, there's a 35-minute course that teaches the soft skill of delegating, and an hour-and-a-half-long course on digital marketing. Compare that to the comparable 29-hour course offered by Coursera. Of course, the LinkedIn courses don't dive as deep, but if you're just looking to understand the basics and pick up the key vocabulary needed to communicate about a topic, it absolutely does the trick.

Plus, with nearly 1,000 courses just on business software and tools, it's a great place to start for visual learners who are looking for quick but thorough app tutorials.

Of course, because you're able to consume so much, it's also a bit more expensive: After a free trial month, monthly subscriptions are $29.99 per month. (Post-acquisition price hikes have proved predictably controversial.) The good news: LinkedIn Learning is popular with employers who want to provide professional development as a perk at work, so you could encourage your employer to give it a try.

LinkedIn Learning Pricing: From $29.99/month for access to unlimited courses; some premium LinkedIn subscriptions include free access to LinkedIn Learning.

Skillshare

Best online professional development platform for courses in creative fields

Skillshare Digital Marketing courses

Skillshare presents itself less as an academy and more as a community. The 25,000+ courses available are created by professionals who want to help other professionals learn new skills (and make some cash in the meantime, of course).

There are business and technology courses available, but some of Skillshare's most unique courses fall under what it calls the Creative category. Because these courses are offered by community members, you end up getting more niche classes, like iPad Art: Create Robots.

For such a potpourri, most courses are of remarkably high quality. Of course, you'll still need to be more discerning as you choose your courses since you can't go by name recognition as you can on other platforms. Be sure to read the bio of the instructor before diving in.

Skillshare Pricing: Some free classes are available; from $15/month for Skillshare Premium that includes unlimited access to more than 25,000 courses.

Codecademy

Best online professional development platform for programming courses

Codecademy Python course

There are plenty of places you can go to learn to code online. But if you're serious about it, Codecademy should be your go-to. Codecademy has been criticized for moving too fast—among other things—but it will teach you the material quickly and thoroughly.

Plus, unlike many learn-to-code platforms, there are instructors who will review your code and give you personalized feedback to be sure you're on the right track. So if you're looking to learn programming, web development, or data science and you have the energy for an intensive class, try Codecademy.

Codecademy Pricing: Many courses are free; from $39.99/month for Codecademy Pro.

General Assembly

Best online professional development platform for interaction with instructors and mentors

General Assembly Digital Marketing course

General Assembly offers courses both in person and online, and focuses on development, design, and data. Throughout the courses, you'll be consistently in touch with instructors, TAs, and mentors, who are largely drawn from local professional organizations. You might find yourself learning from a product designer at Facebook or a web developer at Coca-Cola.

These relationships are valuable during the course, but the value extends long after you finish. You'll be networking while you're taking the courses, and General Assembly prides itself on its alumni network. In a day and age when connections lead to jobs, this isn't something to laugh at. Of course, it also means you'll pay a hefty fee: Courses are usually thousands of dollars each.

General Assembly Pricing: Prices for courses begin in the high three-figures and extend to over $13,000 for full-time coursework. There is one free coding class.

Udemy

Best online professional development platform for niche courses

Udemy Digital Marketing courses

Courses on Udemy can be contributed by anyone.

Before you run in the other direction, there's a review system that can help you cull through the 80,000+ courses in the marketplace and find those that have been approved by other learners.

Because the contributors have a wide variety of backgrounds, you'll find niche courses like The Complete Guide To Multifamily Real Estate Investing. So if you're looking for a course that you can't find anywhere else, chances are you'll find it on Udemy.

Udemy Price: Some courses are free; premium courses range between $20 and $200 but often go on sale for less.


There's no reason you can't take courses on multiple platforms. If you don't mind jumping around a bit, you can find the right course using Class Central, a search engine that aggregates online courses from several of the platforms on this list.

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